How can it be stressful being an expat spouse?


You’re an expat. Your children are at school and your spouse at work. Your only duty is to make dinner today. You have all the day to do whatever you like. Yet, you’re not happy. You actually feel quite stressed and you feel stupid about it. How on earth can you be stressed under these luxurious circumstances? If you would tell your friends at home they would probably frown at you and not understand how such a spoiled person can be stressed. So you try to tell yourself that you are such a lucky person, that all is well and you engage in a mass of activities to keep your mind off those depressing emotions.

If you’re actually living an expat life I’m pretty sure that you have been there. The question is how it can be stressful?

Last week I took a look at the Holmes and Rahe stress scale. It lists 43 stressful life events that can lead to illness, and I realized that when you move abroad you (usually) have to separate from your extended family, say goodbye to all your friends and social network, quit your job not knowing if you will ever get it back, leave or even sell your house and then move to a new house with foreign furniture and no things of your own, try to find food that you can use in a new food culture, try to find your way around in a new neighborhood, try to communicate in a new language, try to understand all the new, unwritten laws and behaviors, get used to the climate and all the noise in a big city as well as the traffic, take care of a stressed out spouse coming home from his/her new job and comfort your children coming home from school in a roller-coaster of emotions (with a new language, friends, system, teachers, subjects and unwritten rules), get yourself out and find new friends and finally enjoy that now you can do whatever you want – if you just had any idea of what that might be.

My conclusion was that you hit so many of the crucial stress factors at once, in a way that you probably never ever do in an everyday life at home. You might not have the stress related to time management that you have at home, but that’s not the most dangerous one. You sort of get BINGO in stressful events!

So accept that it’s enormously stressful to move abroad like you have done! You have had to meet so many stressful events at once that your friends at home would be shocked if they actually understood! Take care of yourself and accept your feelings. Share them with the new friends you find and you’ll be able to comfort each other. If you listen truthfully to yourself you’ll probably be able to figure out what you need to do to reduce your stress level. It might be to start meditate, find a gym, read a book, organize excursions with a neighbor to get to know your city, sleep a lot, watch a movie in the middle of the day or join a course to try new hobbies. The most important, I think, is to accept your feelings, listen to your thoughts and wishes and take a first step to reduce the stress and bring in more moments of recovery and joy.


Below you will find the Holmes and Rahe stress scale.

Life event Life change units
Death of a spouse 100
Divorce 73
Marital separation 65
Imprisonment 63
Death of a close family member 63
Personal injury or illness 53
Marriage 50
Dismissal from work 47
Marital reconciliation 45
Retirement 45
Change in health of family member 44
Pregnancy 40
Sexual difficulties 39
Gain a new family member 39
Business readjustment 39
Change in financial state 38
Death of a close friend 37
Change to different line of work 36
Change in frequency of arguments 35
Major mortgage 32
Foreclosure of mortgage or loan 30
Change in responsibilities at work 29
Child leaving home 29
Trouble with in-laws 29
Outstanding personal achievement 28
Spouse starts or stops work 26
Beginning or end school 26
Change in living conditions 25
Revision of personal habits 24
Trouble with boss 23
Change in working hours or conditions 20
Change in residence 20
Change in schools 20
Change in recreation 19
Change in church activities 19
Change in social activities 18
Minor mortgage or loan 17
Change in sleeping habits 16
Change in number of family reunions 15
Change in eating habits 15
Vacation 13
Major Holiday 12
Minor violation of law 11

Score of 300+: At risk of illness.

Score of 150-299: Risk of illness is moderate (reduced by 30% from the above risk).

Score <150: Only have a slight risk of illness.

How can I reduce my stress level?

meditation 2

I’ve been seeing a TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) doctor for some months together with a friend here in Shanghai. Today he told my friend that her energy level has risen up to the stomach, which is good, but now it has to come up to the head. “You have to reduce your stress level”, the doctor said, putting some acupuncture needles in her feet, but not giving any further advice on how to reduce the stress.

Later she asked me “So shall I just go home and sit in my sofa reading books all days, or what?”

I think this is a problem many of us share. We can clearly see sometimes that we have to reduce the amount of tasks to be done, to not be overwhelmed or too stressed, but that’s not enough. My Stress Coach teacher and world known expert on Mental Training, Lars-Eric Uneståhl, talks about two different types of stress in our bodies. One is the tension we get when we perform something. If we climb a mountain our leg muscles will be pretty tense after a while or if we try to solve a huge problem our brain will be tired.

“Stress is not harmful at all. What is harmful is the lack of recovery.“
Lars-Eric Uneståhl

Since we don’t pay attention to the amount of recovery that is needed every day to be in balance, we produce another kind of stress. That is the basic tension that we have in our body even when we are not performing anything at all. There has to be a small basic tension, because even when we sleep there are autonomous actions in our body that requires energy and produce motion. But unfortunately we go to sleep with tense muscles around our eyes, in our cheeks, stomach, neck, legs and so on. There is this unnecessary tension that we have no use of, a tension that only stops our normal body functions to heal and repair itself.

But there are a lot of things we can do to help our bodies and minds to relax and let go of this unnecessary tension. Here are some of my favorites:

1. Take three deep breaths 2-3 times a day. Concentrate on your diaphragm and fill it with air. Keep your breath for some seconds and let go of it. Make sure that you empty your lungs completely and let there be short moment of stillness before you take the next breath. Don’t overdo this, because it can make you dizzy. Three breaths can be enough to make your body calm down.

2. Meditate on your body. Sit in a comfortable position with your spine strait. Close your eyes and start to concentrate on your different body parts. Is the feeling in your feet good, bad or neutral? What about your legs – good, bad or neutral? Go through your body and give a statement about each part. Try not to think about anything else but the feeling in each part.

3. Meditate on your breath. Sit comfortably as above and this time concentrate on your breathing. Inhale, in a relaxed tempo, exhale, and count 1. Continue like that until 10 and do it all over twice. Try not to think about anything. Just enjoy being.

4. Progressive Muscular Relaxation (PMR). Here I think the best thing is to find a recording that can guide you through the body. The idea is to tense and relax a muscle at a time to learn how to control each muscle and be able to make it relax by will. Usually we have no idea how to relax our right calf muscle for example! Google Progressive Muscular Relaxation or try this very short one from Orrion: Progressive Muscular Relaxation

5. Be mindful about something you do several times every day. For example washing your hands. Each time you wash your hands you give yourself the time to concentrate fully on the experience. How does the water running over your hands feel? Slowly rub the soap into your hands and enjoy the feeling. Just be in the moment. This also gives your body a moment to lower its basic tension.

If you have serious troubles because of your stress you should of course also talk to your doctor!

Remember that you have probably built this basic tension up to this level for years, so don’t expect to be completely relaxed after a few minutes of meditation! It takes time to learn how to relax.

I’d be happy to hear your comment on this! And if you like what you’ve read, please share it!